The Language of Babel.

I continue to find thought-provoking nuggets in How to Read the Bible (see this post); this passage in the “Tower of Babel” chapter makes an obvious point that had never occurred to me:

As with the story of Cain and Abel, the Tower of Babel narrative has, for modern scholars, certain clearly etiological elements: not only its explanation for the name Babel, but also its accounting for the dispersion of peoples across the Near East and the replacement of an originally single, common language by an array of different, mutually incomprehensible idioms. Behind this latter element, too, modern scholars see a message not about the world as a whole, but something rather more local and specific. Semitic languages all appeared to be related: any native speaker could tell that Babylonian and Assyrian and Aramaic and Hebrew all had common roots and expressions, but a speaker of one tongue would not necessarily understand much of what was being said in the others. It is this reality, rather than the existence of different languages per se, that the story seems out to explain: all the peoples of the ancient Near East did, it says, originally speak the same language, but that unity was destroyed quite intentionally by God.

Of course, once Sumerian had fallen into desuetude, all languages spoken in the area would have been clearly related, and the story makes much more sense.

Comments

  1. I’m curious if anyone here has an opinion on Gordon Whittaker’s Euphratic theory. He argues for an Indo-European substratum in Sumerian. One of his lines of reasoning is that the few polysyllabic words in Sumerian are probably borrowings. He sees IE roots in many of those polysyllabic words.

  2. The people who wrote the OT would have been keenly aware of Persians, who spoke an IE language. Their ancestors warred with the Philistines, another Indo-European people. They must have been conscious of Greeks and Hittites as well.

  3. I’m curious if anyone here has an opinion on Gordon Whittaker’s Euphratic theory.

    Huh. I’d never heard of it; here‘s his 2008 paper (pdf) if anyone wants to check it out.

  4. John Cowan says:

    I wonder if Egyptian seemed obviously related to speakers of Semitic languages.

  5. I’ve read a couple of Whittaker’s papers on Euphratic. I didn’t see any obvious signs of crackpottery in them, but as an amateur I’m not really qualified to judge how strong his arguments are.

  6. Thinking geographically, I don’t have a problem with an Indo-European substratum to Sumerian. After all, the topography of the region suggests that the route of the Indo-Europeans as they traveled to India passed fairly close by. They would also have been prevented from moving westward from within that region by the desert. The Semites encroached from the Arabian desert and the Fertile Crescent. Which still begs the question: whence the Sumerians?

  7. J. W. Brewer says:

    There are obviously different theories as to how old different bits of the OT are (and older bits may on some accounts have been repurposed into newer contexts by mysterious hypothesized redactors), and one presumably needs to take sides on various open controversies in order to be confident what other languages the authors/editors/redactors/etc of the particular passage would have necessarily been familiar with. Certainly as time went on and OT-readers came into closer contact with more and more non-Semitic languages (Greek, for example), I don’t think that made the Babel account seem any *less* plausible. But are there classical sources who actually seem to have figured out that e.g. Persian and/or Gothic is related to Greek and/or Latin in a way that the Semitic languages or Egyptian (which I think used to be “Hamitic” until not too many generations ago) are not?

  8. Trond Engen says:

    Wherever the homeland was located, the Indo-European route to India was, by all likelihood and archaeological evidence, north and east of the Caspian sea. And an Indo-European substratum (or ad- or superstratum) in Sumerian would have been much earlier anyway, at a level comparable to Anatolian.

  9. J. W. Brewer says:

    It’s not an issue I know anything about, but the wiki-discussion of the non-Semitic origin of the original Philistine language (and the specific claim it is IE) is very cautious/hedged in its wording: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philistine_language. My summary – we really don’t know, although the speculative theory of IE origin has yet not been affirmatively shown to be BS. And whatever the Philistines originally spoke got progressively semiticized over time, so you’re again back to the issue of what century B.C. you think is relevant for the composition/editing/redaction of the Babel account. (If at the other extreme you took the old-fashioned position that the text of Genesis was fixed no later than the death of Moses, the Philistines haven’t even really come onstage yet.)

  10. Anatolian

    Not too hard to imagine Indo-Europeans of the Anatolian persuasion drifting down the Euphrates. How does that work chronologically with respect to the Sumerians?

  11. David Eddyshaw says:

    John Cowan is quite right (naturally) about Egyptian.

    Although Egyptian is Afroasiatic it’s far from obviously related to the Semitic languages, and it seems unlikely that the relationship would have been apparent to any Canaanites interacting with Egyptians in any plausible timeframe that any of the Bible came from. We’re talking about something like the difference between English and Urdu, at least.

    On the other hand it’s true enough that the Semitic languages at pretty well any stage BC were all close enough that anybody curious about languages doubtless would have noticed something. But Canaanites must have been in contact with speakers of non-Semitic languages at pretty much any time you care to pick, whether Egyptian, or Hittite or Persian or whatever.

    And I don’t really buy the thesis that this has much bearing on the Babel. The whole point of it is surely about languages ending up different, not recognisably similar. It’s pretty much the weirdest thing about human language as opposed to animal signalling, after all, and something which is much more obvious than any similarities – we all talk, but we use completely different words for the same things. If you’re going to mythologise, that would be what you would want to explain with your myth. Only a linguist or a modern Bible scholar would imagine that people would naturally imagine the similarities of languages needed an explanation.

    Classical ideas about relatedness of languages: Varro noticed similarities between Latin and Greek, and drew the culturally natural but wrong conclusion that they showed that Latin was in fact derived from Greek, or at least that the obviously related forms were. I doubt whether the cultural preconceptions of the time would really have allowed any serious thought about whether barbarian languages might be related to Latin and Greek; but in any case the whole notion of “related languages” in the modern sense was absent, like modern notions of language change. Even Dante supposed that Latin was a sort of interlingua and that his own Tuscan had always been the vulgar language of Tuscany, in a diglossic relationship with Latin.

  12. David Eddyshaw says:

    As a further illustration of just how far the ancient Greeks were from our understanding of language change and language relatedness, there’s the familiar story from Herodotus of the Pharaoh Psammetichus trying to find out which was the original human language by raising two children in linguistic isolation to see what language they would speak. In the story He concluded that the oldest language was Phrygian because the children called bread “bekos”, which was Phrygian for bread. Apparently.

    Their understanding, in a nutshell, was no more advanced than that of a modern journalist.

  13. John Cowan says:

    Still, some Greeks may have figured it out in Hellenistic times, even if the fact didn’t stick in the world’s memory. After Alexander there must have been plenty of L2 Persian speakers among the Greek soldiery, and it wasn’t beyond the power of a Greek philosopher (if he didn’t happen to share Aristotle’s views on the complete worthlessness of all barbarian culture) to see a few similarities between the Greek and Persian languages of his day.

    In de Camp’s historical novel An Elephant for Aristotle the (historical) Greek philosopher Pyrron uses such resemblances to argue that Hellenes and Persians were once a single people, and therefore marriages between them are properly endogamous. The story’s young lovers find this convincing, but their parents do not, until all is saved by Alexander’s edict of -323 legitimizing marriages between Hellene soldiers and non-Hellene women.

  14. The complexity of Greek intellectual life kept increasing for several centuries after Herodotus, peaking in late Hellenistic times. 99.9% of pagan Greco-Roman literature is lost. I don’t think it’s silly to imagine that some Greek author could have stumbled upon sound correspondences and discovered the IE family, and that all record of this was subsequently lost. I think that the ancient discovery of heliocentrism, for example, only came down to us through a few off-hand remarks.

  15. A critique of Whittaker, and others, here.

  16. A good find, thanks. I’d say Rubio disposes convincingly of the IE substrate hypothesis, along with some other poorly grounded ideas. I love the end of his first footnote:

    Thirty years later, Christian (1961) abandoned the use of African material, and inverted the substrate and superstrate roles he argued for in his previous attempt. Now the Caucasian language would have been the language spoken in Uruk IV and III, while Tibeto-Burmese would have been the language spoken by a ruling group that arrived over the sea after Uruk III. No comment is necessary here.

  17. marie-lucie says:

    LH, I think Christian’s life’s work deserves to be presented in fuller form. The previous sentence said:

    Christian (1931/32) argued that Sumerian was grammatically a Caucasian language with a mixed substratum, formed by both a Semitic vocabulary and Wortbildung and Sudano-Uralo-Altaic-Tibeto-Burmese phonological feeatures.

    .

    I am only surprised not to see Dravidian in this mix.

  18. “and older bits may on some accounts have been repurposed into newer contexts by mysterious hypothesised redactors”: well, that certainly raised a smile here.

  19. “Thinking geographically, I don’t have a problem with an Indo-European substratum to Sumerian. After all, the topography of the region suggests that the route of the Indo-Europeans as they traveled to India passed fairly close by. ”

    There’s a problem with the timing of this that makes it irrelvant to Sumerian.

  20. “I am only surprised not to see Dravidian in this mix.”

    They were still up at the North Pole.

  21. marie-lucie says:

    Dravidians at the North Pole: yes, of course! How could I forget.

  22. Dravidians at the North Pole: well at least they got there, which is more than Admiral Byrd did, apparently.

  23. marie-lucie says:

    Of course, when the Dravidians went there the North Pole was hot. Then there was global cooling and they had to go south.

  24. English and Urdu are so different that a phrase “My name is David” is translated as “Mera naam David hai…”

    You’ll have to be a linguistics genius to recognize similarity ;-)

  25. marie-lucie says:

    SFR, Seeing a short sentence written, or spoken slowly, using known cognate words and keeping them carefully separated, is one thing. Another is to hear them in a conversation between native speakers, where the cognate words, especially spoken without a break, might be unrecognizable. For instance, it is not obvious that “meranaam” should be analyzed as “mera naam” rather than “me ranaam”. Occasional resemblances of vocabulary between any two languages is a common occurrence even if they are unlikely to be related.

  26. Nevetheless, many people quite removed from modern linguistics noticed similarity of languages and correctly speculated about their relatedness.

    I recall reading about Turkish officer during siege of Vienna in 1683 who noted in his diary that Germans speak language close to Persian. His conclusion was probably based on something very similar

    Mein name ist David.
    Name man David ast.

  27. From the Wikipedia:

    “In 1583, Thomas Stephens, an English Jesuit missionary in Goa, in a letter to his brother that was not published until the 20th century,[4] noted similarities between Indian languages, specifically Sanskrit, and Greek and Latin.
    Another account to mention the ancient language Sanskrit came from Filippo Sassetti (born in Florence in 1540), a merchant who travelled to the Indian subcontinent. Writing in 1585, he noted some word similarities between Sanskrit and Italian (these included devaḥ/dio “God”, sarpaḥ/serpe “serpent”, sapta/sette “seven”, aṣṭa/otto “eight”, nava/nove “nine”).[4] However, neither Stephens’s nor Sassetti’s observations led to further scholarly inquiry.[4]“

  28. marie-lucie says:

    Noting similarities between languages (especially in individual words) is one thing. Formulating a hypothesis about the origin of such similarities is another. Communicating the result to others with the background necessary to evaluate the hypothesis and pursue its implications is yet another.

    Indeed, in the past, many people, especially travellers likely to have acquired at least a functional knowledge of several languages, noted similarities between their own language and others spoken far away (as with Italian and Sanskrit), but did not reach the conclusion that they had a common origin (at the time, any common origin was sought either in Hebrew or in another known language). The Turkish officer who found German “close to Persian” (certainly not close to Turkish) did not necessarily think that the two languages were ‘related’ in the sense that we use today. In any case, single words as found in isolation are not enough to reach this conclusion, since the occurrence of similar words often results from borrowing rather than genetic relationship (as between English and French, for instance). Sir William Jones, considered the founder of historical linguistics, was a scholar familiar with several languages, and his claim to fame does not rest merely on his observations of the resemblances in individual words and in the forms of these words: his critical contribution was the hypothesis that Sanskrit, Greek and Latin must have had a common ancestor “which perhaps no longer exists”. The next step was for scholars to try to figure out what this hypothesized common ancestor, later dubbed “Proto-Indo-European”, was like, based on the comparison of existing languages likely to be related.

    People untrained in comparative linguistics but who have heard of languages being ‘related’ tend to speculate about specific languages on very flimsy evidence. When working in a native community I was told by some people that their language was “familiar with French and German”, and a teacher of Dutch origin, having heard the sound [X] (as in Dutch g), asked me if the local language was related to Dutch.

  29. M-L,
    “Noting similarities between languages (especially in individual words) is one thing. Formulating a hypothesis about the origin of such similarities is another. Communicating the result to others with the background necessary to evaluate the hypothesis and pursue its implications is yet another.”

    Indeed they are. Case in point is l’affaire Penutian. I wonder if you are the same Marie-Lucie, and I bet you are, who is mentioned repeatedly on the talk page of the Wiki on Penutian. If you are you in a position to have an opinion on something I have been wondering.

    This is what I have been wondering is the disparity between they way Africanists, not just Greenberg, are such willing lumpers they they accept the reality of Niger-Congo, whereas Americanists are so persnickety that they hesitate to accept Penutian. Is this really just the case of not having a standard metric to access these relationships that this appears to be?

    I get that WRT to Penutian the history is deep and the case is pretty cold; the evidence has perhaps passed beyond the “data horizon’ into the black hole of time. And I understand that after so many centuries of living cheek by jowl with each other, and with other clearly unrelated languages, the sub-groups are going to have so many adstrate effects as to compromise the data hopelessly. But how is the situation in Niger-Congo any different?

  30. marie-lucie says:

    Jim, yes, I am that person. Once in a great while I look at the Penutian page on Wiki, but I find joining discussions very frustrating. If they are talking so much about me, I should take another look!

    I can’t comment on what Africanists do or don’t do, as I know very little about African languages, but it looks like they and Americanists have quite different backgrounds and types of training. In my opinion, the Penutian question is far from being dead, but few people have addressed it productively. I am also at fault in not seeking more avenues of publication. The Wiki page shoulde include a reference to my 1997 article, most of which not only is still valid but keeps being reinforced by my further research. The appendix does need revision. If you are interested in further information and discussion, send me a private message on Facebook.

  31. Will do, M-L, if I can figure out how.

    The whole question interests me as a Californian and as a Westerner in general. And all the related questions interest me: the question of possible Penutian-Uto-Aztecan affiliations, the historical question of Uto-Aztecan displacement of Penutian in the Great Basin, Penutian interactions with Hokan groups (presuming there is any reality to that grouping.)

    That answer about the disparity of criteria for grouping is about what i suspected was the case. Resolving that is a task for another generation, if one comes along that is not pied-pipered by theoretical fantasies.

  32. marie-lucie says:

    Well, I am certainly not “pied-pipered by theoretical fantasies” and I am pretty sure of having answers to some of the questions (at least linguistically; I leave historical interpretations to the historians). As for Hokan, it has no relation to Penutian except that some of the languages are neighbours and there may be borrowings or other areal influence. The term “Hokan-Penutian” does not refer to any kind of relatedness, it only refers to a conference series which included papers about both of these groups (separately).

  33. marie-lucie says:

    p.s. I suggested facebook because so many people use it. If you don’t, you probably have friends who do. In any case, you can sign up (free) without having to reveal much about yourself, and then you can search for my name and leave me a message which I will answer.

  34. marie-lucie says:

    p.p.s. If you include your email address in the message, I will reply to that.

  35. John Cowan says:

    Some of Marie-Lucie’s papers are available online:

    “Ergative and accusative: A single representation of grammatical relations with evidence from Nisgha” (Working Papers of the Linguistic Circle 1982, freely available PDF). I found two generative-based responses to this by Robert S. Belvin: “Nisgha syntax and the ergativity hypothesis” (M.A. thesis 1984, freely available PDF), “Ergativity and Accusativity in Nisgha Syntax” (Berkeley Linguistics Society 1990, freely available PDF).

    “Morphophonemics of Nisgha plural formation: A step towards Proto-Tsimshian reconstruction” (Kansas University Working Papers 1983, freely available PDF).

    “Morphophonemics of Nisgha plural formation: A step towards Proto-Tsimshian reconstruction” (Working Papers of the Linguistic Circle 1983, freely available PDF).

    “From the Nisgha speaker’s point of view: the evidential postclitics” (WPLC 1984, freely available PDF).

    “The Evolution of the Nisgha Counting System: A Window on Cultural Change” (1983, WPLC, freely available PDF).

    “Tsimshianic and Penutian: Problems, methods, results, and implications” (IJAL 1997, can be put on personal JSTOR shelf)

    “On the eve of a new paradigm: The current challenges to comparative linguistics in a Kuhnian perspective” (1999: Historical Linguistics, Google Books partial view)

    “From Erosion to renovation: The emergence of the Coast Tsimshian preposition da (2008, New reflections on Grammaticalization 4, freely available PDF).

  36. marie-lucie says:

    I did not expect to see (or post) this list here! These papers present parts of my work. Some of them are very old and no longer represent all my views on the language(s). For those tho might want to read them, I have a few remarks.

    Information contained in papers on the Nisgha/Nisga’a language was incorporated or updated in my grammar of the language (1989). For the two 1983 papers on morphophonemics, the WPLC one was a course paper, which I revised and expanded for the Kansas article. Most of the first half of the paper still stands, but the second part, dealing with some irregular forms, would need updating in the light of comparison with other members of the family. The one on the counting system would also need the same type of updating.

    After I wrote the 1982 paper on ergativity, Belvin wrote an MA thesis (later revised as the Berkeley paper) disputing my results because they did not agree with Marantz’s generative description of ergativity. I still do not agree with Marantz (or Belvin, whose work also contains some errors of data). (I had not seen the 2nd paper until now). When I researched works on ergativity, it was obvious which authors had actually studied languages with this feature and which of them had only done some picking and choosing in grammars of such languages, never getting a “feel” for the feature. Marantz was in the second group.

    The Penutian connection, first proposed by Sapir, at first seemed to me very unlikely but ended up becoming my major area of research in 1995, along with my ongoing reconstruction of Proto-Tsimshianic (based on the four varieties in the family). The 1997 article is still valid except for a couple of minor revisions (the entire journal issue deals with Penutian languages). My contribution to comparative Penutian research consists mostly of morphological comparison of Proto-Tsimshianic with as many as possible of the languages and families usually included under the name Penutian. Since the article was written I have found a few additional morphemes, but have not had to remove any from the 1997 list. On the other hand, the appendix (which gives a number of apparent lexical correspondences) would need revision in the light of my more recent research.

    Another paper that is very important for the Penutian connection is not mentioned here but should be available online: “Tsimshianic l-initial plurals: a relic of an ancient Penutian pattern” (2002, Berkeley Ling society).

    The 1999 paper deals with my views of the situation of historical linguistics. Things have not changed much since I wrote it, although some generativists have started to admit that historical phenomena might be relevant.

    The last mentioned document is a one-page abstract for a paper that I was scheduled to present at a conference that I was unable to attend. I presented a new version in 2012.

  37. John Cowan says:

    Here’s the l-initial plurals paper (freely downloadable PDF). I ran Google Scholar searches to find the papers and their links. If you don’t want the list to be here, I’m sure Steve will take it down.

    The second Belvin paper apparently exists in both 1990 and 2012 versions, but the Google Scholar links are identical. I found yet another paper of his on Nisga’a: “The causation hierarchy, semantic control and eventivity in Nisgha” (ASJU 1997, freely downloadable PDF).

    Hat: If m-l is okay with keeping the above list here, could you fix up the typos and markup errors? Thanks. (It’s things like this that really make me feel the lack of preview.)

  38. It’s very easy for unsophisticated people to come up with ideas of the relatedness of languages. I recently met an Inner Mongolian who spoke good Japanese and was fascinated with English because of the supposed similarities between English and Mongolian. One of the examples cited was ‘ideh’ being similar to ‘eat’. It’s nice when people take an interest in other languages, but really, if your basis for doing so is based on a couple of random observations on vocabulary similarities, surely it would be more intelligent to try and find out what has already been researched about the topic than just hazard guesses in the dark.

  39. Hat: If m-l is okay with keeping the above list here, could you fix up the typos and markup errors? Thanks.

    Done; let me know if I missed anything.

  40. surely it would be more intelligent to try and find out what has already been researched about the topic than just hazard guesses in the dark.

    Well, of course it would be. It would be more intelligent to look before one leaps, too, and not marry until one was ready. We humans are capable of acting intelligently but usually prefer to hazard guesses in the dark. What are ya gonna do? As Stalin allegedly said about authors, I have no other humans to offer you.

  41. David Eddyshaw says:

    @Jim:

    I think the reason why Africanists have been much readier to adopt Greenbergian lumpism than Americanists have is due to a number of things:

    1. The level of documentation of American languages, including by some of the greatest descriptive linguists ever, is much greater than for all but a handful of African languages.

    2. Greenberg’s classification was a real advance at least on some of its predecessors inasmuch as it is at least based on entirely linguistic criteria, rather than vague racial or cultural principles. Mind you, its less controversial parts tend to be the less original too.

    3. A lot more African languages than American probably really are related in a potentially scientifically demonstrable way.

    Cynically, I think (1) may be the most significant. As far as I can make out, few experts in the actual “Khoi-San” languages buy into Greenberg’s notion that they really are a genetic unity; “Nilosaharan” is pretty much on a level with Altaic in terms of rigour.

    That really leaves Afroasiatic and Niger-Khordofanian.

    Afroasiatic is a sort of special case as probably the deepest (in terms of probable time depth) language family accepted by non-fringe historical linguists, due to the fact that it includes most of the earliest languages ever to be written, and that the languages often show extremely unusual features like the ablaut-on-steroids of the Semitic branch which seem to go way back and mean even in the absence of much in the way of real reconstruction it seems pretty certain we’re looking at a genetic group.

    Niger-Khordofanian …

    I know one Gur language, Kusaal, fairly well. It is obviously closely related to some of the neighbouring languages, like Moore, Dagbani, Mampruli and Dagaari, to a degree which is apparent to any inquisitive native speaker. (Interestingly, these resemblances are accounted for in terms of supposed common descent of the speakers, much as seems to be going on in Genesis with some though not all of the “Shemitic” groups.)

    If the documentation of these languages were better, it would be straightforward to reconstruct a protolanguage. As far as I know this has never been done – what work I have seen makes elementary errors, for example in reconstructing an entire additional contrast of alveolars vs dentals because the conditioning factors for the development of the reflexes in the actual languages have been overlooked.

    This is the sort of thing which ought to be the *beginning* of setting up Gur as a linguistic genetic group and it hasn’t been done. When you start comparing these languages with remoter “Gur” languages like Kasem it soon becomes apparent that the Gur group is on a level with Indoeuropean in terms of diversity, not Germanic or Slavonic. Senoufo, generally called Gur, is remoter still.

    So even individual subgroups of “Niger-Khodofanian” are on a level with Indoeuropean; in other words, the groups as a whole is a pretty long-range hypothesis. Parts of it are nevertheless quite plausible – for example the Gur noun class system does look very much as if it is related to the Bantu. Others very much less so – the evidence that Mande belongs would never convince a typical sceptical Americanist, for example.

  42. marie-lucie says:

    LH: I had not intended to splash my work over the blog, but since those articles have already been mentioned, and my remarks too, they might as well stay.

    Americanists vs Africanists: Among North American languages, several families are very well established, the major one being Algic (comprising the huge Algonkian family which includes dozens of languages, plus two isolated distant relatives on the California coast: Yurok and Wiyot). Compared to Algonkian, spoken over an extensive, largely flat territory in the US and Canada), Penutian is still considered a hypothetical group of languages spoken in varied territory between the Pacific Coast and the Rockies, squeezed between several other language families, and mostly quite distinct from each other. In terms of comparative and historical study, the Algonkian work started with a very competently trained linguist (Bloomfield), while the Penutian work has been pursued mosly by linguists well trained in descriptive methods but minimally in historical methods.

    As for the reception of Greenberg’s work on American languages, he largely accepted other linguists’ proposed classifications, except that he lumped together all the languages which did not fit into the two Northernmost families (Eskimo-Aleut and Na-Dene, which are each very distinctive) and called the rest Amerind. While Greenberg had some valid criticisms to make about some of the current historical work (especially – reading between the lines – on California languages), his own methodology was VERY questionable and his conclusions inacceptable. My feeling is that the currently very large number of American families will eventually be reduced through regrouping, and instead there will be several groups of intermediate size (on the order of Indo-Euopean, which is a family of language families). Penutian should be one of those groups (probably with some redefining of its overall membership and internal subgroups).

  43. M-L,
    “As for Hokan, it has no relation to Penutian except that some of the languages are neighbours and there may be borrowings or other areal influence.”

    It even feels different. When you are looking at Atsuge and Klamath-Modoc, you know you are in very, very different langugaes, especially structurally. In fact given the time depth of the contacts, it’s surprising how distinct they stayed.

    John and David, thank you very much for all of that, especially M-L’s papers!

    David,
    ” for example the Gur noun class system does look very much as if it is related to the Bantu”

    That sounds convincing just on the geography, not much chance for contact. But yet.

    All these N-K groups have been in contact for God kknows how long. And God only knows what their settlement and migration hisotry is. The expansion of the sahara is bound to have crammed languages into contact, but it’s speculation to assume all the movement was only southward. And really this was a main argument against retaining Pentutian, as I understood it.

    And those first two reasons sound like arguments from silence to me. And the third one, it seems to me, fits for Penutian as much as for N-K. It hangs on overt evidence, but that evidence can’t disprove contact influence.

    Afroasiatic – yeah, that system of derivation you see in all of them is probabaly unique in the world.

    I guess it really comes down to what constitutes a proto-language and how that fits with creolization and other contatc effects – and what bearing that really has on how this or that actual language came to be – what is the definition of relatedness, looking at a language as a system rather than at the history – common ancestry – of the community speaking it.

    One final thing – I wonder – if Penutian does end up being demonstrated, that may provide tools for loking at all these long range proposals rather than just dsmissing them as unprovable.

  44. I had not intended to splash my work over the blog, but since those articles have already been mentioned, and my remarks too, they might as well stay.

    I’m glad you feel that way; I appreciate your desire not to cause a splash, but I think it’s good to have your work available in this convenient fashion, and there’s such a thing as excessive modesty!

    I’d like to thank everyone involved in the discussion of North American and African language families; I’m learning a lot (though I probably won’t retain much of it).

  45. “LH: I had not intended to splash my work over the blog, but since those articles have already been mentioned, and my remarks too, they might as well stay.”

    I am very grateful that John went and found this for me. And I am grateful for your work. I understand good manners and reticence, but this work represents a real contribution and it should be shared as widely as possible. I think Mary Haas would be pleased.

    “Americanists vs Africanists: Among North American languages, several families are very well established, the major one being Algic (comprising the huge Algonkian family which includes dozens of languages, plus two isolated distant relatives on the California coast: Yurok and Wiyot). Compared to Algonkian, spoken over an extensive, largely flat territory in the US and Canada), Penutian is still considered a hypothetical group of languages spoken in varied territory between the Pacific Coast and the Rockies, squeezed between several other language families, and mostly quite distinct from each other.”

    If somehow Indo-iranian had all gone extinct we would be saying the same thing about IE versus Turkic.

    “In terms of comparative and historical study, the Algonkian work started with a very competently trained linguist (Bloomfield), while the Penutian work has been pursued mosly by linguists well trained in descriptive methods but minimally in historical methods. ”

    Ain’t that the truth. a grounding in IE or Chinese research would help train people. Chinese in aprticualr, wiht the way consonants get treated and the way the writing system is so ambiguous wrt to phonetics, would be like Ranger School.

  46. Just wikipedia’d for Afroasiatic and found this gem:

    There are two etymological dictionaries of Afroasiatic, one by Christopher Ehret, and one by Vladimir Orel and Olga Stolbova. The two dictionaries disagree on almost everything.

  47. That’s absolutely wonderful.

  48. David Eddyshaw says:

    In a sense, it’s not surprising. Proto-Semitic must be dated as far back as Proto-Indoeuropean, after all, and that’s just one branch of the tree. Old Kingdom Egyptian from the 3rd millenium BC is less like Protosemitic than modern Aramaic dialects are. So any putative proto-Afroasiatic would be likely to date back so far you wouldn’t realistically expect to be able to identify much shared vocabulary any more. Closer to the last Ice Age than the present.

    As I said, Afroasiatic generally is thought to be a real thing even so, on the basis of some shared, often fairly unusual morphology which seems very unlikely to be due to borrowing, like the prefix-conjugation in y+ 3sgm t+ 3sgf n+ 3pl etc, feminines in +t, 2sg possessives with suffixed +k, abstract nouns with prefixed m+, plural forms with infixed -a- and so forth. All this turns up in a language as remote from Hebrew and Arabic as Hausa.

    What’s depressing about the dictionaries in question is the way they happily accept vast semantic and phonological latitude in the comparisons made. They are like the various Nostratic compilations that so much effort has gone into, and it says it all that they differ so much from one another.

    With Niger-Khordofanian there isn’t even anything as compelling, it seems to me. Gur certainly has noun classes, like Bantu; but to start with, they are marked by suffixes instead of prefixes. I’ve seen it sweepingly asserted that Gur originally had prefixes and the suffixes are a secondary development from fused, agreeing, pronominal elements, but there are AFAIK no Gur languages with only prefixes, most show no trace of any noun class prefixes, and in the minority which have both, like Gurmanche, the synchronic position is transparently the other way round – the prefixes are more loosely attached and retain a deictic meaning. Presumably people have been simply looking at dictionaries and not bothering with grammar. No way to do historical linguistics.

  49. John Cowan says:

    In Essentialist Explanations, I find this: “Gur languages are essentially typical Niger-Congo languages, only with the nouns spoken backwards.” It’s attributed to me, which means I saw it in some source decades ago and don’t remember where.

    I assume this is about suffixes rather than prefixes, but I can’t be sure.

  50. I’ve seen it posited that Proto-Afroasiatic was the language of the Natufian culture of Palestine, the first farmers of ca. 10,000 BCE, and that it spread with agriculture and herding. I think this is plausible, afaict, in spite of the fact that Colin Renfrew is one of the people that believes it.

  51. marie-lucie says:

    Afro-Asiatic: A friend of mine took courses in Ancient Egyptian, became interested in Afro-Asiatic, went to Nigeria to learn Hausa and do fieldwork on Chadic, and published a comparative word list of some Chadic languages, before the situation in Nigeria became too dangerous for further fieldwork. He does not have a high opinion of Ehret’s work.

  52. David Eddyshaw says:

    It’s been truly said that Greenberg-style mass comparison can only be at best a way of suggesting relationships to be confirmed (or not) by later proper comparative work. Unfortunately in Africa his conclusions seem often to have been accepted as givens and (with some sterling exceptions) the proper bottom-up comparative work has yet to get properly off the ground.

    The possibility of resemblances being due to large-scale borrowing between originally distinct language families doesn’t seem to have been much considered, which is a pity given that a lot of contemporary West Africa is in many ways one big Sprachbund, with things like: aspect being more prominent than tense in the verb, serial verb constructions, no case inflection for nouns, terracing tone systems and a huge amount of semantic congruence turning up again and again in languages with little or no close genetic connexion – unsurprisingly when a great many people are multilingual. There seems no reason to suppose that things were much different in the past.

    I don’t think it’s inconceivable that a general feature of noun classes, with a close association of nouns in noun phrases with a preceding or following class-marking pronominal element, could have been an areal feature spreading among proto-Gur and other groups. The actual markers are all short, V or CV, there aren’t that many potentially different consonants involved, and there are so many different sets in the different Niger-Khordofanian languages that have noun classes that by pure chance you’d expect lookalikes. Human-plural “ba” turns up all over but apart from that the similarity is not so much in the details as in the basic concept of lots of noun classes with dissimilar singular and plural markers and some correlation of class and meaning.

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